Ottawa Jazz Festival seeks gender equality in this summer’s lineup

Omara Portuondo will be performing on the Jazz Festival main stage on June 28.

At 88, Omara Portuondo, the doyenne of the Buena Vista Social Club and Cuban music, has embarked on what she is calling her ‘Last Kiss’ tour.

It is a journey that will bring her to Ottawa as a headliner in the June’s TD Ottawa Jazz Festival. She’ll join Norah Jones, Chicago, Judith Hill and The Roots (with a separate late show by DJ Questlove) on the main stage at Marion Dewar Plaza for the festival that opens June 21 and runs until Canada Day. The announcement is out earlier than is the norm, but that seems to be the case across the city. RBC Ottawa Bluesfest released their lineup earlier this week.

This year’s festival is making another kind of statement, says Jazzfest’s programming manager, Petr Cancura.

“We put a lot of effort into highlighting women as leaders. It is a really tricky project to take on but where we really tried to do it is on other stages.”

Norah Jones will be on the main stage June 25.

The festival is returning to venues inside the National Arts Centre including concerts in the Fourth Stage and in the Studio, now that the construction is over.

In the Fourth Stage are performers such as Anna Webber’s Simple Trio and Kris Davis and Ingrid Laubrock, the duo of bassist Joelle Leandre and clarinetist Lori Freedman, the Melissa Aldana Quartet.

In the Studio are people like the Patricia Barber Trio, Cyrille Aimee, who is presenting her Sondheim Adventure tribute to the Broadway legend and the jazz singer Cecile McLorin Salvant.

“Across the board the goal was to try to be equal. It is a really interesting project because first of all in the jazz world you are facing a history of it being a ma’s world. It is so hard for women to be in that world.

“It’s better this years than ever,” Cancura believes, “because of the #MeToo movement, but it’s still not easy. As a team we had to remind ourselves every day that we were trying to be gender equal.”

There are more male acts available for historical reasons.

“Honestly this is something we have been thinking about for the past two or three years. With Catherine (O’Grady) the executive director, and she is a woman, we have the conversation all the time that we need more women. We decided that this year we would just go for it and really embrace it and see how far we can take it.”

Every series has a significant amount of women, he said, adding that “I don’t really want to get into statistics. The funny thing is, for example, with (the Chilean tenor saxophone player) Melissa Aldana, she’s great. She’s this young, fierce woman who won the Thelonious Monk competition and, of course, she has a quartet full of guys.”

Still, Cancura said, he believes it’s more important to have someone like Aldana, who is leading an ensemble with an ensemble full of men, than a quartet led by a man with three women in it.

Melissa Aldana and her quartet will be in the Fourth Stage June 26.

He also doesn’t want to be saying to a band leader like Aldana to bring women along in the quartet. “That’s not fair.”

On the main stage, Cancura believes the festival has put together a really strong lineup. He said they have been trying to get Norah Jones to the festival for many years.

“I also think it is still important for us to present some marquee talent. Chicago has been on the docket for many years as well.”

The main stage, he said, is really more of a reflection of the core audience of the festival.

“We get really great feedback on acts such as Boz Scaggs or Steve Earle. The kinds of acts that a certain generation wants to see.”

He believes The Roots are “super exciting and fit right in. They are still going upwards. They are on TV and they are always collaborating and I think they are very cool.”

Then he said the festival decided to put some jazz on the main stage with jazz pianist Brad Mehldau‘s Quintet. Mehldau has worked with many of the greats including Pat Metheny, Charlie Haden, Michael Brecker and Wayne Shorter over a 20 year career. There is also drummer/singer/composer Terri Lyne  Carrington and Social Science.

Brad Mehldau’s Quintet will be on the main stage June 26.

“At that point we filled it in with some smaller exciting acts like the soul ensemble Lee Fields & The Expressions and singer Judith Hill.” She will open the main stage on June 21.

Cancura thinks that putting a lot of the jazz shows inside the NAC is a better fit for those shows.

Cancura was also at pains to single out the New Zealand born alto saxophonist Hayden Chisholm who will be an artist in residence this summer.

“He plays microtonally and he’s kind of a big deal at it.” Chisholm will do two shows and spend a day with the festival’s youth summit. He’ll be playing in a trio and with a 13-piece local chamber ensemble.

Cancura also singled out concerts featuring:

• The Danish guitarist and composer Jakob Bro with Thomas Morgan and Joey Baron;

• Montreal saxophonist Christine Jensen’s Jazz Orchestra, a gender neutral band. Cancura is helping put together the ensemble which will include an all-female sax section. In the end it will be a Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto conglomerate, he said featuring Canadian female composers;

• Brooklyn, New York’s paris-monster is a rocking drummer and a bass player duo who are “super virtuosic,” he said;

Cha Wa is a Grammy nominated Indigenous band from New Orleans.

For information on all the acts, tickets and concert dates and times please see

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.